Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies

Burt's Bees Might Have Been the Micro-Business that Got Away from Vermont, But Commentator Timothy McQuiston Says There Are Now Ways to Keep the Next Entrepreneur at Home
October 18, 2006; by Cathy Resmer
(HOST) Burt's Bees might have been the micro-business that got away from Vermont, but commentator Timothy McQuiston says there are now ways to keep the next entrepreneur at home.

(MCQUISTON) You know Burt's Bees. You see Burt's products all around, especially at health food stores, but even in mainstream retail like at drug store checkouts - Burt has become an impulse buy! Not bad for a guy who once sold honey out of a truck and lived in a converted chicken coop in Maine.

What not too many people know is that Burt tried to make his business work in Vermont. He had a storefront on Church Street in Burlington in the early '90s. You'd see him handing out fliers for his bees wax products. He was kind of a character, I think it's fair to say: He looked just like he does on his labels: shaggy beard and Boxcar Willy hat, and all.

So one day I asked him, "How's business?'

"No good," he said, "Vermont is a lousy place to do business. You get no help."

By "no help" he meant, I suppose, government or banking assistance to help a very small business get off the ground. "I'm moving to North Carolina," he said. And sure enough he did, and now sells way more product in Vermont than he did when he was actually here.

If you're a micro-business it's never easy to get assistance from a bank or even a public agency. But since Burt moved south, the Vermont economy has gotten better, organizations like the Small Business Development Center has expanded, and separate, quasi public entities have come along.

One of the most promising of these new ventures is the Vermont Center for Emerging Technology or VCET. This is targeted for entrepreneurial technology companies that face the same problems Burt and many others have struggled with.

VCET, based in Burlington, provides typical incubator services like office and lab space, as well as administrative help. It also puts businesses in contact with promising investors and consultants. It's a collaborative effort involving local business leaders with federal funding assistance secured by Senator Leahy.

UVM has given VCET professional office space, and offers the businesses a wealth of university services. It leverages resources from across the state.

Even if an entrepreneur has adequate startup capital, the effort in simply running a new business can sap time, energy and money out of an operation, regardless of how great the product is. And that's the point. VCET is there to help startup companies develop a great product, and then in a year they send you on your way to allow for another new company to come in and get the same head start.

VCET recently graduated, if you will, its first class: Bulldog Entertainment which develops family oriented Web sites, and ElectroCell, whose energy-related technologies help reduce agricultural waste.

Such a program might not have helped Burt. But business development in Vermont will require many different strategies and include various entities - private and public - for the state to be successful.

So don't let anyone tell you that Vermont's economic future is "none of your bees wax." Because it is.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.
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